From Hale-Bopp, the famous comet, to the near-forgotten Hen of Leeds, history is littered with failed apocalyptic predictions.
Now we can add the purported (though not by the people it’s attributed to) apocalyptic end of the Long Count Calendar on December 21, 2012 (which is real) to the list of doomsday predictions that did not come true (because they were fiction).
As was noted earlier today, the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice came and went at 6:12 a.m. Eastern Time. For an instant, the North Pole was tilted 23.5 degrees away from the sun, “its most southerly declination,” as the timekeeping website Timeanddate.com put it. “On this date, all places above a latitude of 66.5 degrees north (Arctic Polar Circle) are now in darkness, while locations below a latitude of 66.5 degrees south (Antarctic Polar Circle) receive 24 hours of daylight.”
And that is all that happened, astronomically speaking. Down here on Earth, there was quite a ruckus. People either panicked or celebrated, trying to make sense of the supposed Maya prediction that the world would end on December 21, 2012—or ushering in a new age of peace and transformation, which is what the Maya actually predicted.
Trouble is that, like numerous doomsayers before them, the predictions and predictors (who were not Mayan) were wrong. And we can add their notions to the list of failed end-of-the-world predictions going back hundreds of years, and beyond. While the myth of Mayan apocalypse was perhaps the longest-lasting and persistent such theory in recent times, several others have gained traction in the past few centuries.
In 1806, LiveScience.com and others report, a hen in Leeds, England, supposedly began laying eggs emblazoned with the phrase “Christ is coming.” Word got around, which convinced people that the end times were near. The hoax was cracked open, though, when the egg-laying was observed up close.
"Some gentlemen, hearing of the matter, went one fine morning, and caught the poor hen in the act of laying one of her miraculous eggs,” wrote Charles Mackay, a 19th-century author, in Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. “They soon ascertained beyond doubt that the egg had been inscribed with some corrosive ink, and cruelly forced up again into the bird's body."
Wired, the source of this information, also discusses the 2011 Rapture promulgated by Harold Camping, at age 89 perhaps not too far from an apocalypse of his own. The host of the Christian radio show Family Radio did some numerology (not to be confused with actuarial number-crunching) calculations and determined the date for the biblical Rapture, in which Jesus Christ returns and transports believers to the Kingdom of Heaven one last time, as well as for the End of Days. He predicted that 200 million people would vanish on May 21, 2011, with the rest of the people subject to earthquakes and other ills until October 2011, when the universe would perish in fire. Although wildfires ensued, and some pretty intense earthquakes have shaken various corners of the world, we are still here.
The online newspaper The Inquisitr discussed a prediction prevalent in 1998 in which God would drive a UFO, according to Taiwanese cult leader Hon-Ming Chen. About 140 people got together in Garland, Texas, for the March 31 arrival but they did not cause themselves or anyone else any harm.
Such predictions took a tragic turn, though, in 1997, when 39 members of a cult calling itself Heaven’s Gate committed mass suicide after their leader, Marshall Applewhite, told them that comet Hale-Bopp’s tail contained a spaceship that would take them to “a better place,” as Wired put it.
“For Applewhite, the approaching ship signified the end (or rather, recycling) of the Earth, and thus the Heaven's Gate group had to act if they were to make it into the Kingdom of Heaven via the spaceship,” Wired said. “In order to reach the spaceship, the group had to kill themselves to make the required teleportation.”
The dead were all wearing matching black pants, Nike trainers, and had sheathed their faces and chests in purple shrouds. They had also helped one another pass on, or, as Applewhite reportedly called it, undertake their “willful exit.”
Some of the oldest predictions go back centuries, if not millennia. In The End of Time: Faith and the Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium (Sinclair-Stevenson Ltd., 1996), author Damian Thompson recounts the year 634 B.C., which spawned one of the first recorded doomsday prophecies, according to the International Business Times.
“Some Romans believed their city would be destroyed according to a myth of 12 eagles, each representing 10 years, who told Romulus, the mythical founder, when the city would end,” reported the International Business Times. “It didn't happen, and Rome went on to conquer the western world.”
More notorious than that long-ago belief is the idea that the prophet Michel de Nostrdame, popularly known as Nostradamus, predicted that in 1999 a “king of terror” would drop from the sky, according to Timeanddate.com and other sources.
His “heavily obfuscated and metaphorical writings … have intrigued people for over 400 years,” said LiveScience.com. “His writings, the accuracy of which relies heavily upon very flexible interpretations, have been translated and re-translated in dozens of different versions. One of the most famous quatrains read, ‘The year 1999, seventh month/From the sky will come great king of terror.’ Many Nostradamus devotees grew concerned that this was the famed prognosticator's vision of Armageddon.”
The only thing that happened in 1999, prophetically speaking, was the Y2K scare, when technology was supposed to collapse under the weight of a date-keeping system that could only handle up to the number 1999 and would flip back to 1900 instead of moving up to 2000 when the 21st century started. A flurry of software fixes ensued, as did various doomsday preparations and prophecies around the world. However, either the problem was repaired before it could take hold and ruin everything, or it had never existed, because … as with the others, nothing happened.
Speaking of keeping dates straight, as it turns out that’s all the Maya were doing with their three-calendar system, according to LiveScience.com. They were counting the days.